Orlando City SC have shown us flashes of brilliance on the pitch at various times this season. Last night against the New York Red Bulls was not one of those. I will give our lads high marks for effort and fighting hard throughout the match, but the execution was not sound. In the opening minutes of the match the passing was neither crisp nor on target, allowing a lot of takeaways and interceptions by the visiting side. In fact, the top three factors in the loss last night, as I saw them, are poor execution by our players, discipline and precision by the visitors, and questionable judgement by the referees.
Poor Execution in Purple
After the 25th minute, it seemed that Orlando City was starting to mount some attacks on the goal, but in the final third and within the Red Bulls area before the goal, the attacks fell apart. Some transplanted Red Bulls fans now living in Miami were sitting near us, and during the match they commented that the hesitation and disorganization displayed by Orlando City in the prime area of attack on the goal reminded them of past seasons of their own squad. "When we had Thierry Henry, everyone would look for him when they got the ball down in the area. It seems like all the young guys on your squad are looking for Kaka to try to give him the ball to score."
That's possible, and it's a criticism I've leveled previously in the blog after other matches. But primarily I think the problem is that our players wait to think what to do with the ball until they get the ball. Watching more experienced teams and clubs that play in some of the top leagues of the world, that consideration seems to be made prior to the ball arriving. Players need to be facing goal and positioned so that when the ball comes in their first touch can be a shot on goal. So many times, the ball comes in and our player has his back to goal or is turned across the pitch and has to settle and try to turn before they can shoot, giving the opposing defenders a chance to close and cut off the opportunity to take a shot on goal.
Another thing that was on display last night from our players is the triumph of youthful emotion over disciplined tactics. There was an element of gamesmanship on display by some of the veteran Red Bulls players, who chipped, tugged, nudged, and bumped some of our younger players throughout the night, and at times our players reacted with emotional outbursts that resulted in fouls called or cards issued by the officials. As the match wore on, this had a combined effect of making the officials more disposed to call fouls against us, and making our players think more about the tactics of the opponent than concentrating on finishing our own attacks.
I get it--this year is going to be a year full of "tactical hazing" by opponents as they try to take the measure of our club and test our mettle to see how disciplined, tactically sound, and athletically skilled we are. It's natural in any league for established franchises to look at matches against expansion sides and see potential opportunities for reinforcing that you are the veterans and they are the newcomers.
Disciplined Precision by the Visitors
In the 21st minute, Sacha Kljestan scored a great goal, kicking the ball over the outstretched arms of a leaping Tally Hall, who had advanced to the middle of the 6-yard box, but still managing to dip under the crossbar to find the far top corner of the net. It was a well-constructed, well-timed, well-struck shot.
Then in the 32nd minute, Cyle Larin was ejected with a straight red card on a questionable judgment call by the officials. Thereafter, the Red Bulls seemed fairly content for the remainder of the first half and most of the second half to play "keep away" by simply disrupting Orlando City attacks and getting our players to chase the ball around the pitch as they controlled both the tactics of the match and established a possession advantage. They did not press attacks often, instead waiting for mistakes by Orlando City to give them openings that were too tempting to pass up, and finally in stoppage time at the end of the second half they were able to add a second goal to secure the victory and ensure there would be no comeback by the home side.
Questionable Referee Performance
I've already alluded to this with the passing mention of Cyle Larin's ejection in the 32nd minute. Near midfield, Larin went for a sliding tackle of the ball off the feet of Sacha Kljestan close to the edge of the pitch. It was ruled a studs-up tackle, which by my reading of the MLS rules should result in an automatic yellow card, with the officials' option to issue a red if they judge malicious intent. The rule is in place to protect players from potentially season-ending or career-limiting injury by getting cleats driven into their legs and ankles, so it's understandable.
The frustrating part of the call for this fan is that the referee ran over, seemingly intent on issuing a yellow card caution, but the fourth official apparently judged that Larin's attack was particularly malicious and convinced the referee that an ejection was in order. From the fact that none of the Red Bulls players were screaming for ejection, it makes me think the fourth official misjudged the call.
There were a number of other questionable calls on the night, mostly related to the officials missing the last touch by players before a ball went out of bounds. The worst missed call of this type came in the 73rd minute, when Cristian Higuita sent a shot from the top of the area screaming toward the upper reaches of the New York goal. Red Bulls keeper Luis Robles leaped up and clearly tipped the ball over his net to prevent the goal, but the officials awarded a goal kick to the visitors instead of making the proper call to award a corner kick to the home team.
This missed call was the last straw for Orlando City coach Adrian Heath, who gave the fourth official such an earful on the sidelines that he was ejected from the match as well. Walking off the pitch, "Inchy" fired up the supporters in the south end zone, eliciting the biggest cheers of the night from the crowd of over 33,000 on hand. It's more than a little unfortunate when the ejection of the coach is what draws the biggest cheers of the night, but overall there was not a whole lot to cheer for in the match if you were an Orlando City fan.
Orlando City has two matches coming up in the next seven days. None of the ejections from this match will impact the lineup for the US Open Cup match in Chicago on Wednesday night, but Cyle Larin will be out for the match next Sunday in Yankee Stadium against NYCFC, and Inchy may be forced to miss that game, according to rules as reported on the Orlando City post match show last night.
Probably the best spark of hope from the match last night was the debut of Corey Ashe in purple. He was active and speedy and seems like he will be a good addition to the team. His experience will help the defense, especially as he begins to gel with his new teammates on the practice pitch and in match conditions. I know better performances and better days are ahead for our club, but after two home losses in a row it's starting to feel like the pressure of trying to stay in the playoff race is starting to eat at the players a bit. Hopefully this passes soon and we'll get back to the winning formula that had us knocking on the door of second place in the East a couple of matches ago. Vamos Orlando!